Note: This blog was written in January 2023, but not posted until July.
This week I went to the hair salon. As I was waiting for my hair colour to process, one of the stylists struck up a conversation with me. The stylists all know me and my daughters as we have been going there for a while.
The conversation started out pleasantly enough with the stylist asking about how my daughters were going, but when the conversation turned to me it got a little awkward. It’s currently school holidays, and of course at this time of the year people tend to be a bit ‘over’ sitting around with the kids.
She asked me if I ever catch up with my friends. This I suppose would be a pretty typically polite question. But for me it was really confronting. Because, actually, I have no friends in Australia. I kind of froze. Maybe it wasn’t a super long pause, but it was definitely long enough to be called an awkward pause. I didn’t know how to answer. I suppose I could have just said something untrue to move the conversation along. I could have pretended to have friends. Made up some things that me and my imaginary friends do when we hang out.
But that isn’t really my style. I just told the sad truth. I told her that I don’t have friends to catch up with. I said that I hadn’t really been able to reconnect with any of the friends I had here before I moved away. Coming back at the start of Covid didn’t help, but I did see two of the women I used to be friends with before I moved away. And while everything was pleasant enough, it was clear that our lives had changed in the 4 years that I was gone. We had met at my daughter’s school. My daughter was in Year 1 at the time, and we would wait outside of the classroom doors and somehow struck up some conversation. I got included in group invites from time to time. But it never felt too much like I was a ‘main character’.
And when I reconnected with a few of these ladies, we were all in different phases of our lives. Hitting midlife, we no longer had little kids, and back then, our lives were very much about being mums, and when the kids were smaller I found it easier to connect on things than when they were older and didn’t want me talking about them.
So I didn’t push too hard to rekindle the friendships. I mean, if you have read much of my blog, I am sure you can see that I haven’t had the capacity to do the things it takes to make friends. Shit, I haven’t even been able to maintain my friendships I made in America – and there’s no expectation of leaving the house to catch up with those friends.
Friendship hasn’t really been a priority to me. I think that as a child, in my early days of school I just wanted to be near someone I felt safe with. Growing up in the 80s, things were very different than they’ve been for my kids. Back then, we knew all the kids in our neighbourhood. Our parents often told us to go outside to play and when we did, we would find that the other kids in the neighbourhood were out playing too. Again, I feel like I was always on the periphery of these friendships. Invited along, but nobody’s ‘bestie’ or first choice. Always feeling awkward and uncertain.
As a teenager, my friends became mostly boys, and a few girls. If I was a ‘bestie’ it was often with someone who used me. My best friend for a while became someone who manipulated me into lying and got me into some very dangerous situations. In looking back I think much of it had to do with me being ‘a good kid’ so her parents would trust her if she was with me. Eventually she became pregnant in Year 10 and left the school we went to.
Boyfriends Instead of Best Friends
I ended up, at 15, with an 18 year old boyfriend who had already graduated, had a job, and was going to University. His world became my world, and then when we broke up when I went away to University, I repeated the pattern with a new boyfriend. I was part of a friendship group of people until I left that school after one year to begin a program at another school. At this school I didn’t live on campus, and didn’t make friends. Yes, I had acquaintances in my classes but nobody that I caught up with outside of school.
In my early 20s I continued to see myself as a periphery friend and a girlfriend, and eventually a wife. My ex-husband was from a really big family, and played sports so I got enough socialising from hanging around with family and his teammates and their girlfriends. I was also working, first in an office and then in schools so again, I wasn’t lacking social connection. In fact it was really too much.
Finding Mateship in Marriage
Then I met my current husband who was very introverted. His family was much smaller than mine. His friends consisted of his band mates, who were not too welcoming to me. I never made friends the first time I lived in Australia. And when I moved back to America, I had my husband and my job and my big family which felt like more than enough.
I really didn’t feel too much of a need for ‘friendship’ before becoming a mother. I had my husband who to this day is still my best friend. I had more than enough socialising any time I had a job. And family filled in any gaps.
When we were immersed in the small Australian heavy metal music scene, I felt a sense of belonging and camaraderie – but often I felt like I was not seen as an individual – more like half of a power couple – and most people were a lot more interested in my husband than they were in me. Or at least that’s what I assumed. I could be wrong.
Single Serving Friends
When I became a mum I started to feel like I needed some other mums to share the experience with. To talk through some of the things that I found challenging. I did feel supported at times, but often in mothers’ groups I would find myself feeling dismissed when I talked about how difficult things were for me and how challenging my daughter was. And again, I didn’t make a strong connection with anyone where I felt like a best friend. I did meet some lovely people, and one in particular I still think about with so much gratitude, but maybe because I move around so much, I always end up with what feels like ‘single serving friends’
Last time I was in America, I once again met other mums through school. This time, it was my younger daughter who was in school and I volunteered to help at her school but wouldn’t call those ‘friendships’. I met parents of my daughter’s friends and socialised but never felt like we were quite friends. And I was okay with that.
But eventually I did make some really good friends. People I could ‘go deep’ with. People I could unmask around. People I wanted to spend time with. My tribe. You know, those people I mentioned that I don’t keep up with now that I’ve moved. And my ‘all or nothing’ shit is probably why I haven’t kept up the friendships. If I can’t have the friendships the way they were (ie – we lived close enough to physically ‘catch up’) – then it’s too fucking painful to bother. If I have to be reminded constantly of what I left behind, and go through mini waves of grief every time we talk – then it’s better not to bother. Much like I don’t often allow myself to dream about visiting ‘home’ because I know that to visit means that there will be more heartbreaking goodbyes when the trip is over.
I have recently reconnected with a friend from overseas. But we were never in-person friends. We did eventually meet in person once, but by that time we had already established a friendship over the phone. And because of that I think it’s felt more natural and easy to rekindle the friendship. And I am really grateful for that.
But the most confronting thing that the stylist’s question brought up was the reality of the state of my social connections. In the awkwardness of my oversharing, I told her that outside of my family, my social life is actually made up of people who are paid to be in my life. Psychiatrists. Psychologists. Counsellors. Support workers.
I didn’t say it to sound pathetic. Or for her to feel sorry for me. It’s just that blunt truth that came tumbling out of my mouth. It’s not ‘normal’ but it’s also not something I am ashamed of. These people have helped me and my family, and part of their role is to help me build the capacity to develop more (unpaid and authentic) social connections.
Contemplations on Connections
The well-meaning stylist who likes to solve everyone’s problems told me that she could give me information about a women’s group that meets up in my area to have dinner every couple of weeks. She told me that she was going to make her mum go because her mum was shy and hangs back in group settings. I told her that wasn’t really my kind of thing, but if her mum didn’t like it she could give her my number and we could meet for a quiet one on one conversation.
In the past I probably would have felt some kind of obligation to go. To give it a try. I have a very hard time saying no, especially when put on the spot. And I do feel more capacity overall now. But does that necessarily mean that I need to throw myself into a friendship group?
There’s a part of me that reminds me that I met my ‘tribe’ in America through business networking groups of all places! We were the ‘different’ people that didn’t quite fit and didn’t play the game and didn’t want to – but we attended because someone told us it would be good for our businesses so we went. And found each other. And so I tell myself that maybe if I gave this group a chance, I might catch the vibes of someone who doesn’t quite fit, and maybe start to build a tribe here.
What I want from a friendship is not surface stuff. I don’t want to socialise for the sake of socialising. If I want to ‘go deep’ there are friends from America that I can go deep with if I just allow myself to. I am sure the grief will fluctuate over time, but now that I know it’s been holding me back I also know that I have the capacity to allow that sadness without being consumed by it.
And maybe I will open myself up to more opportunities to meet people this year. But it’s not the ‘main thing’ – the main thing for me is to re-connect with myself. To figure out what I enjoy doing. What makes me energised and feeling like life is worth living. To do things that break me free of my cycle of monotony. And maybe friendships will naturally develop through working through those things. I think that’s more important for me now than efforting or forcing my way into finding my tribe.